Herbal supplements are hot sellers

September 4, 2009

With the settlement of the class-action lawsuit brought against First DataBank and McKesson by third-party payors accusing the companies of conspiring to inflate average wholesale prices (AWP) of hundreds of drugs, AWP values will roll back from 1.25 to 1.20 times the drugs' wholesale acquisition cost (WAC).

Key Points

Why the sudden increase after several years of declining sales? Some believe the economic downturn has caused patients to forgo expensive prescriptions in place of less-expensive herbal alternatives. The increase in use may also be connected to the growing number of consumers who view herbal supplements as all-natural and safe to ingest. Yet other reasons for increased use may include the accessibility of herbal supplements and consumer dissatisfaction with prescription medications.

Consumers are using herbs for a number of reasons. They want to lower cholesterol, shorten the duration of colds, improve memory or energy levels, reduce pain, lose weight, and protect vision. A Nielsen survey reported by Functional Ingredients magazine showed that 55 percent of North Americans take supplements proactively to boost their immune systems.

Do herbal supplements work? Many shoppers believe that they do and are already taking them. This is illustrated by a 2008 Nielsen Global Online Survey that found that more than half of all U.S. consumers use supplements. Three quarters of those consumers say that they use supplements every day.

Herb-drug interactions

The overall public perception is that because herbs are natural, they must be safe. In fact, a 2002 National Health Interview survey showed that half of the adults questioned did not disclose their herb use to conventional medical professionals, such as physicians, nurses or pharmacists. Not only do individuals who use herbal remedies risk therapeutic failure, they also risk dangerous side effects from unforseen drug-herb or herb-herb interactions.

The reality is that more than 17,000 supplement-related health problems were handled by U.S. poison control centers in 2007. Unfortunately, many pharmacists neglect to ask what kinds of supplements patients are taking when they fill or refill a prescription. As reported by the open-access journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a U.S. national survey found that only 7 percent of pharmacists agreed that they add herbs to their patients' profiles.

Pharmacists can help clients avoid interactions

BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine also reported that approximately half the adults polled in one U.S. study preferred to purchase alternative healthcare products from a pharmacy. It also reported that 37 percent of respondents agreed that pharmacist advice about alternative therapies such as herbal supplements is important. Clearly, pharmacists are in the right position to help patients make good choices.

Jennifer Johnston is with Hamacher Resource Group, Inc. ( http://www.hamacher.com/), which provides category management, marketing communications, and retailing strategies to the health and wellness industry.